LISBON: The coronavirus pandemic has changed almost everything about the Champions League. Empty stadiums, games in August and a tournament in Portugal.
But Bayern Munich and Barcelona keep winning, and Robert Lewandowski and Lionel Messi keep scoring.
Lewandowski scored twice and set up two more goals as Bayern beat Chelsea 4-1 in Munich on Saturday to complete a 7-1 rout over two legs.
Next up is a quarter-final against Messi’s Barca, who beat Napoli 3-1 at home in Saturday’s other game for a 4-2 aggregate victory which took the club into the Champions League last-eight for the 13th consecutive season.
Messi scored a brilliant solo goal as Barca saw off Napoli but they are likely to need something even more special from their captain to beat Bayern.
“Bayern is a great rival and is one of the favourites, along with us, of the eight that will be in Portugal,” Barca’s Luis Suarez said.
Barca and Bayern, who are arguably favourites to win the tournament, will meet on Friday in a mouth-watering clash of the Final Eight tournament in Lisbon in a bubble format of tight security to prevent a coronavirus outbreak from derailing the competitions finale.
“The anticipation is enormous,” Bayern defender David Alaba said. “We’re already excited. Barcelona has a good team with very good players but we want to compete with them. We will go to Portugal with confidence and, after the last few months, we have nothing to hide from.”
Barca are searching for their first European Cup since 2015 and only a Champions League trophy will prevent them from ending the season without a title for the first time since 2014. They lost the La Liga title to Real Madrid last month and failed to reach the Copa del Rey final.
After champions Liverpool, Real Madrid, and Juventus all exited in the round of 16, Barca will believe they have an even better chance to win a sixth title but they will have to improve significantly to match Bayern who arean 18-game winning streak across all competitions and remain on course for a treble of titles.
“It’s going to be very complicated,” admitted Barca coach Quique Setien. “This was the first forward step we wanted and now I hope that we play the matches ahead with the same attitude which we demonstrated here.”
Bayern, who won the domestic league and Cup double and have won all eight of their Champions League games, haven’t lost since December.
“We wanted to win the [Chelsea] game and show we were picking up where we left off,” Bayern coach Hansi Flick told Sky, adding of Barcelona: “As with any opponent, we have the requisite respect and we’re going to prepare well.”
After finishing five points behind Real in La Liga, Barca resumed in the Champions League with doubts hanging over the form of the team and the future of their coach.
Messi had sounded the alarm after Barca’s rusty performance in the 1-1 draw in the last-16 first leg back in February, saying they stood no chance of winning Europe’s top prize unless they improved.
He would have been worried by Barca’s stuttering start which saw Napoli swarm all over the home side’s area and Dries Mertens clip the crossbar in the second minute with a scuffed shot at Camp Nou.
But Napoli’s slack defending allowed Clement Lenglet to score with a free header 10th minute from a corner before Messi scored a superb second in the 23rd, seeing off four defenders to curl the ball into the far bottom corner.
Messi had the ball in the net again soon after following a superb team move but the goal was harshly ruled out for handball by the Argentine following a VAR review, although Messi later won a penalty which Suarez converted for Barca’s third.
Gennaro Gattuso’s Napoli got one back when Lorenzo Insigne converted a spot kick at the end of the first half and were the better side after the interval but Barca survived.
“We have a lot to regret, we disappeared for half an hour and conceded incredible goals,” Gattuso said. “I am disappointed, I believe we could have done better.”
Bayern started with a 3-0 lead from the first leg in February and took the lead on the night after 10 minutes when Lewandowski scored from the penalty spot after he’d been tripped by goalkeeper Willy Caballero when through on goal.
Lewandowski was the key man again for Bayern’s second goal, holding up the ball in the 24th and turning to play in Ivan Perisic, who ran onto the pass from the right and hit the ball past Caballero.
Chelsea did get on the scoresheet with Tammy Abraham’s tap-in after a goalkeeping error as Manuel Neuer palmed the ball into his path a minute before the break but it was Bayern who were in control in the second half.
Corentin Tolisso added another for Bayern in the 76th when he was left unmarked to meet a cross from Lewandowski. Then Lewandowski headed in the fourth off an assist from Alvaro Odriozola eight minutes later.
He is now four goals short of Cristiano Ronaldo’s record of 17 Champions League goals in 2013/14.
“It’s not a goal of mine,” said Lewandowski when asked about Ronaldo’s record. “We have a few more games in the knock-out round and I am just as happy creating goals as scoring them.”
The Poland star was also coy when asked about a rivalry with Messi. “We have to perform well and show our quality as a team against a good Barcelona side, it’s a big game for everybody.”
Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2020